How to Be an Antiracist

How to Be an Antiracist
Category: Americas
Genre: History
Publisher: One World
Published: 8/13/2019
Ibram X. Kendi's concept of antiracism reenergizes and reshapes the conversation about racial justice in America--but even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. In How to be an Antiracist, Kendi asks us to think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it.

Book Summary - How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Key Insights

In America, there is a long legacy of racism and the hatred, violence, and injustice that comes with it. Discrimination related to race and physical appearance is a complex topic that is more than traditional concepts of racism.

Ibram X. Kendi explores race and racism, including related issues such as colorism. Kendi brings in personal experience with insights from politics, history, and sociology. How to Be an Antiracist moves beyond simply not being a racist to actively working against racism.

Race-based perceptions may feel like a toxic and pervasive presence. Kendi offers some optimism, sharing how everyone can make things better by becoming an antiracist.

Key Points

Racial inequity comes from racist policies, which are later defended using racist ideas.

Kendi points out the cause-and-effect relationship between racial inequities and racist policies. When policy creates a situation where one racial group fares better than another, Kendi considers this a racist policy.

Every policy supports or continues racial equity or inequity, even if it was not created for the explicit purpose of being racist. There are no neutral policies. Either a policy is racist or it isn’t.

Racist ideas argue that one racial group is in some way better than another. Racist policies usually come before racist ideas. These racist ideas are used to retroactively justify the inequity.

For example, Portugal traded enslaved Africans in the 15th century for decades before the concept of a “Black race” was created. After that, the Portuguese spread the racist idea that the Black race was savage and needing saving. The racist policy came first and was justified using a racist idea.

Antiracism works to promote racial equality.

If a policy works to increase or maintain racial equity, it is an antiracist policy. A policy does not need to be free of discrimination to be antiracist. Kendi points out that there is positive discrimination, which can enhance equity among racial groups.

One well-known example of an antiracist policy is affirmative action. This has been inaccurately labeled as racist for favoring applicants from racial minorities. However, this program discriminates in a positive way, meant to increase racial equality in hiring or college admissions.

Unlike racist ideas, antiracist ideas do not retroactively support antiracist policies. Antiracist ideas hold no positive or negative biases about any racial group. No matter the apparent differences, an antiracist idea believes that races are and always will be equal.

You are either a racist or an antiracist.

Kendi points to racial justice seeming to go backward in terms of progress. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump said that Blacks were lazy and immigrants from Mexico were rapists. To fight racial injustices, you need to be an antiracist.

A racist spreads racist ideas or helps racist policies. You can help a racist policy by either actively supporting it or not caring and allowing it to continue unresisted.

An antiracist does not stand idly by when there are racist policies. People have to stand up to injustice or they are just perpetuating it. If you aren’t an antiracist, you are a racist.

Racists blame the lack of racial equality on the racial minority.

Sometimes, racism is more subtle than loudly stated hatred for another race. Kendi highlights two schools of thought that are also racist: assimilationists and segregationists.

Assimilationists believe that racial equality can be achieved if the racial minority could improve. For example, Eleanor Holmes Norton said in 1985 that the reason Black people were not equal was because of “ghetto culture.” The author and politician claimed that this culture included a poor work ethic, lack of respect for families, and not prioritizing education.

In assimilationists, the racist idea is based on holding one racial group as the standard for success and the other racial group as inferior. Usually, the superior group are white and the persons of color need to be taught how to be better, like a child. Assimilationists do not outright say that one group is “bad” but say that they need to be more like another, better racial group.

Segregationists do not place a burden on the racial minority to improve racial equities. Instead, they believe that equality is impossible because the persons of color will always be inferior and cannot improve. For segregationists, the inferior racial group is not like a child, but like an animal. In fact, Donald Trump even referred to Latin immigrants as “animals” who needed a wall to keep them out of the United States.

An antiracist does not blame the racial minority for inequality. Instead, to be an antiracist, you need to push for policies that address the inequity. For example, don’t blame the Black culture for higher unemployment rates in that racial group. Instead, look to change the racist policies that created the employment disparities.

There are no genetic differences by race.

It is easy to see physical differences between racial groups. It is racist to conclude that these differences are biological.

A biological racist believes that different races have different genetic or biological makeup. They also attribute certain better or worse traits to each race due to these supposed biological differences. For example, believing Black people are genetically predisposed to be better athletes or to be more well-endowed.

Antiracists know that races are biologically the same. In fact, humans share 99.9% of the same genetics. Any genetic commonalities come from what is passed down from your parents. That is why there are some genetic similarities by region and ethnicity. However, Kendi points out that it crosses racial boundaries. West African ethnicities have more genetic overlap with Western Europeans than East African ethnic groups.

Racism perpetuates colorism.

From a racist viewpoint, dark is bad and light is good. This baseless discrimination known as colorism holds even within a single race.

Treatment of Black people varies depending on their skin tone. In a variety of settings, those with lighter skin had an advantage over those with darker skin. Studies have seen this preference in white voters considering Black politicians, employers reviewing Black candidates, and in courts making sentencing decisions. Even children viewed lighter Black people more favorably.

Kendi shares his own experiences with colorist ideas. As a college student, he wore contact lenses to make his eye color look lighter. In his mind, he was just trying to be more attractive. However, that conclusion was rooted in colorism.

To be an antiracist, you need to be mindful of the difference color makes. Gains are more often awarded to the lighter-skinned and losses are more often dropped on the darker-skinned. Antiracists have to include fighting colorism in the push for antiracist policies.

Racism is racism no matter the race.

It may be tempting to respond to white racists or inequality in favor of white people with an anti-white sentiment. Kendi emphasizes that anti-white ideas are also racist.

The election of George W. Bush came after many African Americans were not permitted to vote. They registered but were not sent voter registration cards. They tried to vote but their ballots were rejected more than whites. Kendi reacted to this injustice by turning his anger towards white people generally.

Kendi found the Nation of Islam. According to their beliefs, white people were created by an African scientist long ago. This evil scientist made the pale-skinned devils. They were exiled by the Black race, which was a peaceful race. The whites were savages that lived in caves. They eventually took over the world and now use their racist power to maintain control.

Viewing the white race as white devils is also racist. All white people do not create and maintain racist policies. White people are not inferior to Black people or any other race. White people are not genetically predisposed to being more racist or oppressive. There are not any “white genes” at all.

If you want to be an antiracist, you cannot accept any form of racism no matter what racial group is being targeted.

Blacks can be racist against Blacks.

It may seem counterintuitive to be racist against your own race, but it does happen. There may be a line drawn attempting to distinguish the classy Black people from the trashy ones. The disrespectable Black people are perceived to reflect poorly on the entire race.

Comedian Chris Rock had a bit in his 1996 television special that was based on this internal racism. Rock says that there are some Black people that are uneducated, don’t provide for their children, and just use welfare instead of getting a job. Rock uses the N-word to describe these “lesser” Black people.

Kendi shared the experience of an African American newspaper editor also using the N-word to distinguish himself from other Black people. Even though he was commenting on his mistreatment at the hands of police, he was saying that he was superior to the other Black people that police abuse.

In a 2017 survey, a third of Black Americans believed that racism did not cause inequality for poorer Black Americans. Instead, they were responsible for their circumstances.

An antiracist understands that Black people can be racist too, even towards other Black people. It is possible to combat internal racism. Persons of color in positions of power should also be pushed towards antiracist initiatives instead of echoing racist ideas.

Fight racism like a disease.

At the age of 35, Kendi was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. His chance of surviving five years was 12 percent.

Kendi saw how racism and cancer were similar. Racism has grown and spread throughout the culture, politics, and social systems. With a variety of traumatic effects of racism, it is threatening to destroy the country like cancer threatens to destroy the body.

When people find out they’re sick, they turn to fight the disease and curing it. Unlike cancer, people are unwilling to look at racism directly and figure out how to fight it. Many won’t acknowledge the racist policies or admit their role in racial inequality. Without doing so, we can’t fight the cancer of racism.

All isn’t lost.

Kendi is in remission. He beat stage four colon cancer. He is 12 percent. He fought by thinking of a healthy future. His story gives him hope for the fight against racism.

Even when it looks grim, the antiracist should keep fighting. Dream of a world that is equal and just for all races. Do not look away. Do not become complicit. An antiracist keeps fighting.

The Main Take-away

It is not enough to not be racist. To make a difference you have to be an antiracist. If you are not actively working against racism, you are a racist. An antiracist understands where racist ideas come from and how racist policies affect equity. An antiracist does not accept any form of racism, overt or subtle. Armed with facts, the antiracist does not allow common stereotypes, misconceptions, or tropes to allow them to accept racist conclusions. Using all the tools at their disposal, an antiracist should keep fighting for a future of racial equality.

About the Author

Ibram X. Kendi is a professor, author, and historian. Well-known for his essays on race and discrimination, Kendi is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He founded the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University.


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